By Jamal Shahid
ISLAMABAD: Wildlife conservation efforts, particularly for the common leopard in the hills of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), have had little effect as more than 60 common leopards have been illegally hunted in the past four years.
According to game wardens in the AJK Wildlife Department, seven common leopards were killed in November and December 2013 alone.
In some cases, automatic weapons are being used to kill the endangered species listed as ‘near threatened’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
“It’s like the annihilation of an exotic species,” said a helpless game warden in Kotli when contacted over the phone.
Giving a recent example, the game warden told Dawn about a female leopard which was killed using automatic weapons on December 28, 2013.
“We later discovered that she was pregnant with two cubs,” he said, adding that a police report was then registered against the hunting party. However, no arrests were made even after the game warden identified individuals in the hunting party.
“Instead, the police and I were soon forced to run for cover as the hunting party, which included my nephew, opened fire on us,” said the game warden.
He said the hunters were either strong people or were backed by influentials in the area.
Similarly, in late November 2013, another leopard was smoked out of its cave and then clubbed and axed to death. These leopards were killed in the Punch and Kotli districts of AJK.
According to the wildlife department, there have never been cases of common leopards attacking or killing people.
“There have been minor incidents only for which people are to be blamed. Last year, a man saw a leopard in the bush and hit it with a stick. In defence, the big cat scratched the man’s face,” the game warden said.
He added that a similar case was reported when a woman tried to hit a leopard to scare it away. “The leopard scratched the woman and took off.”
Dr Anis Rehman of the Himalayan Wildlife Foundation, a local NGO working on conservation efforts of indigenous species in AJK, said none of the leopards had come into conflict with local residents.
“We are losing this important species as we deliberate over phone calls and exchange emails on what is being done. It does not seem to bother the government which is not taking immediate actions to save the common leopard,” he said.
Dr Anis believed more resources needed to be injected into the wildlife department to save the common leopard from completely vanishing from the forests of Pakistan.
While AJK wildlife department said influentials were hunting leopards for fun, conservation organisations attribute the increase in illegal hunting to conflict between people and the animal.
“The figures may not be accurate but the trend is very disturbing. We have taken notice of the issue,” said Director Biodiversity World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Uzma Khan who has been supporting and educating local communities scattered in the hills of AJK to be more tolerant towards the big cat in Punch and Kotli districts.
WWF has been educating locals to improve on grazing techniques while discouraging the free grazing system where domestic animals are allowed to wander off.
She emphasised that hunting of the common leopard was prohibited because it was a protected species.
“Because there is no punishment, those with resources will exploit the system. It is also wrong that the media portrays these exotic cats as bloodthirsty beasts,” she said.
Providing an example, she said last week the media described a leopard captured in Sialkot as a beast which resulted in a negative image of the animal and decreased its chances of survival.
Uzma Khan lamented that there were no concrete measures or conservations efforts by the government to protect the common leopard from vanishing completely.
However, the exact number of the common leopard in the wild, starting from where Punch River enters at the Pakistan-India border all the way down to the Margalla Hills, has never been known.
Uzma Khan explained that leopards covered significant territory. “We collared a leopard in Ayubia National Park last year which covered four to five kilometres in a single day.
A leopard spotted in a particular area can also be spotted in a far off distance the same day, making it difficult to count their exact number,” she explained.
Dr Ali Nawaz, a professor in Quaid-e-Azam University Islamabad and founder of the Snow Leopard Conservation Trust, echoed along similar lines while giving the example of a snow leopard that was collared.
The leopard spent summers in Afghanistan and the winters in Chitral, he said.
Dr Nawaz has recently concluded a research on the common leopard in Ayubia National Park stretching into the forest of Nathia Gali, Dunga Gali and Khanspur. Dr Ali Nawaz tested 100 samples of feces collected in the park and the results were also published in the International Scientific Journal earlier this month.
“We found that livestock made up more than 80 per cent of the leopard’s diet. This is not surprising as the animal’s natural prey has almost vanished due to expanding settlements and loss of habitat.
Domesticated animals are easier to hunt,” Dr Ali Nawaz told Dawn while explaining that conflict between leopards and man was becoming inevitable.
He did not blame the AJK wildlife department which he believed lacked the resources and capacity to protect the common leopard from illegal hunting.